Does attachment to pets indicate distrust of humans?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Medically reviewed by Amanda Zeglis, DO, MBA
Published October 27, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Companion animals are known to provide a sense of social support, improve heart health, and boost feelings of happiness in their human owners.

  • Emerging research also shows that emotionally attached individuals to their companion animals may struggle with interpersonal relationships.

  • Specifically, individuals who developed insecure attachment styles in early childhood have stronger emotional attachments to their pets than individuals in their life and may also struggle with loneliness and depression.

The COVID-19 pandemic was characterized by months of isolation, causing many individuals to adopt a companion animal, as reported in The Washington Post.[]

These animals have been linked to enhanced physical and mental health in the general population, as well as in individuals with mental health disorders such as PTSD.

But is our emotional attachment to companion animals a compensatory response to insecure human attachment?

Are we trading relationships with humans for love and attachment to animals?

Benefits of owning pets

COVID-19 showed us how we need connection, as many of us adopted a dog or a cat—a “pandemic pet”—to fill the void of not being around loved ones, according to the Washington Post article.

In a review published in Bioscience, companion animals were shown to reduce blood pressure in stressful situations, improve cardiovascular health, and decrease overall physician visits.[]

The Bioscience review cited a study of 92 heart attack victims which found that among the pet owners in the group, 28% survived for at least 1 year, compared with 6% of those who didn’t own pets.

The review also cited a study on stockbrokers with hypertension in which those who owned pets had lower increases in blood pressure than those who didn’t.

The Bioscience authors also wrote of an increase in oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins that occurs in individuals when they stroke a dog, resulting in decreased stress levels and elevated mood.

A study published in BMC Psychiatry showed that companion animals provide a direct sense of social support for pet owners and reduce loneliness and depression. Individuals also reported greater self-efficacy in attaining personal goals.[]

The following are additional benefits of owning a companion animal cited in the Bioscience review:

  • Children with companion animals have been shown to exhibit improved self-esteem, empathy, and socialization.

  • Companion animals have been found to play a soothing role for individuals with dementia and their families.

  • People have increased frequency of social interactions in situations where a dog is present.

  • Companion animals, specifically dogs, can be trained as service or assistance dogs for people with disabilities.

Pets benefit, too

Pets benefit from living in homes with kind, attentive human companions, according to the Bioscience article.

The authors wrote that stroking or petting an animal was shown to decrease its heart rate, as well as morning cortisol in dogs.

In addition, positive human-animal interactions showed increased levels of neurotransmitters, specifically phenylacetic acid, in humans and animals, suggesting that both benefit from the relationship.

Negative attachments among humans

Human-animal interactions have a potential downside. Emerging research has shown that individuals who are emotionally attached to their pets may struggle with interpersonal human relationships and bonding experiences with others, especially people who have unhealthy attachment issues stemming from childhood.

According to the BMC Psychiatry article, research has linked some cases of strong emotional attachment to pets with childhood trauma and elevated levels of dissociation.

The study also found that humans emotionally attached to their pets may have lower levels of social support and a higher likelihood of loneliness and depression.

They may find emotional attachments to pets more secure than attachment to other people. In addition, children may benefit more from the presence of a therapy animal than another person.

Further research is needed on why humans make such strong emotional bonds with companion animals. Authors of the BMC Psychiatry article speculated that this close emotional bond may be a compensatory mechanism for individuals who did not have secure relationships with other individuals during childhood.

What this means for you

Looking for signs of emotional disarray, such as loneliness or depression, in your patients is important. Evolving research on companion animals is a reminder that just because your patient is emotionally attached to their pet doesn't always mean they have companionship in other aspects of their life. It may be a sign that they are struggling with depression, loneliness, or unfulfilled relationships, and may require treatment.

Read Next: 5 ways you didn’t know your pet was keeping you healthy
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